College in the Military

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Active-duty military personnel can prepare for civilian life by earning a college degree. These learners often face unique challenges, such as establishing residency for tuition purposes, transitioning between military and civilian learning styles, and balancing coursework with other responsibilities.

Fortunately, the best online colleges for the military offer numerous degrees and extensive support services. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, 75% of student veterans attended college full time in 2018. Nearly half of these learners earned a degree while raising children. Many online programs deliver coursework asynchronously and employ advisors who work solely with service members.

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The federal government promotes higher education with the GI Bill®. This bill provides significant financial assistance to qualifying degree-seekers. In 2017, revisions to the bill included expanded financial aid to Purple Heart recipients and refunds if a learner’s school closes. Service members can also apply for private and institutional funding.

 
 

FAQ


  • Q. Can you attend college while in the military?

    Online colleges for military personnel offer resources designed to support service members. Many schools accommodate degree-seekers deployed overseas and those who must pause their education for a reason related to their service.


  • Q. Should I finish college before joining the military?

    New enlistees with a college degree may qualify for officer training programs. However, service members cannot use GI Bill benefits for past education expenses.


  • Q. Is college free if you are in the military?

    GI Bill assistance may not cover all tuition and fees, especially for students at private institutions. Students should speak with a financial aid advisor at their prospective school before enrolling.


  • Q. Do all colleges accept the GI Bill?

    The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains a list of colleges and universities that accept the GI Bill. Some colleges for military personnel offer additional financial aid through the Yellow Ribbon Program.


How to Navigate College


Many active-duty service members and veterans face challenges to earning a degree, such as an education gap between high school and college. These learners may need assistance honing research, math, and writing skills, which are essential to college success. Fortunately, military-friendly schools often provide academic resources such as tutors and advisors with military backgrounds. Online learners can often access these services as well.

Prospective Students


Prospective students can explore resources designed to help them excel in school. The Warrior-Scholar Project offers 1- to 2-week academic boot camps emphasizing STEM fields, business, and the humanities. Professors from top universities such as Princeton and Yale lead in-person and virtual sessions simulating the college experience. Shorter programs train women business leaders and help future degree-seekers hone study skills.

Veterans


For veterans, earning a degree may involve overcoming psychological trauma. Organizations such as Real Warriors encourage veterans in need to start therapy. Real Warriors’ services include an emergency hotline and directions to the closest military treatment facility. The organization also offers articles detailing mental health issues that veterans commonly experience, such as anger, grief, and sleep deprivation.

On-Campus Resources


Colleges often provide on-campus resources for service members and veterans. College counselors assist students with PTSD, marital problems, and interpersonal conflicts. Some of the best online colleges for military service members offer counseling and therapy at no additional charge. Learners can contact their prospective school’s student services department for more information.

Even if learners do not need psychological counseling or related services, they may feel out of place or isolated on a college campus due to their unique life experience. Degree-seekers can join Student Veterans of America (SVA) as they begin transitioning back to civilian life. SVA maintains chapters on more than 1,500 campuses throughout the United States and awards exclusive scholarships.

Enrollment Options for Active-Duty and Reserve Members



Not all colleges for military service members require learners to attend courses on campus. Many schools offer online and hybrid programs, generous transfer credit policies, and credit for military experience. These programs may save learners money on tuition and reduce the time needed to graduate.

Military personnel can continue their education while deployed and living on base. Satellite campuses and the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) deliver self-paced courses and career-preparation assistance.


  • Satellite Campuses

    Many of the best online colleges for military students maintain one or more satellite campuses. These campuses allow students to receive an on-campus experience without relocating. Students at satellite campuses may also receive lower tuition rates and more student-teacher interaction than learners on main campuses.

    However, attending a satellite campus may come with drawbacks. The small campus size may limit the number of academic facilities, extracurricular activities, and available courses. Students should visit their prospective campus to determine whether it meets their educational needs.


  • Online Programs

    Independent and distance learning can help active-duty service members earn a degree from their current location. DANTES’s Kuder Journey software connects students with highly trained advisors and coaches. Kuder Journey’s other benefits include a digital portfolio for work samples, career transition resources, and one-on-one job-hunting assistance.

    Although online colleges for military personnel feature multiple advantages, some learners may struggle with managing time and using online learning software. Fortunately, Kuder Journey and many online schools provide IT and academic support services. Some schools also require distance students to complete an online learning orientation.


Paying for College as Active Military



Active-duty service members can pursue many options to help finance a college degree. Tuition assistance programs, the GI Bill, and private scholarship opportunities can make college an affordable investment. Eligibility criteria vary, but the list below features some financial aid programs for service members. Learners should consult their prospective school’s financial aid counselors for more information.


  • Tuition Assistance

    Each of the military’s five branches provides tuition assistance to service members in good standing. As of 2021, the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, and Navy award a maximum of $4,500 annually. Coast Guard members receive up to $3,750.

    Service members who qualify for either the Montgomery GI Bill® or the Post-9/11 GI Bill® can also apply for Tuition Assistance Top-Up (TATU). This federal program helps learners close the gap between a course’s cost and a branch’s tuition assistance payments. TATU expires after 36 months and may reduce recipients’ future GI Bill benefits.


  • GI Bill

    Congress passed the GI Bill in 1944 to help returning Second World War veterans earn a college degree and buy a home. The bill underwent many changes in the following decades. Under the current law, service members qualify for the Post-9/11 GI Bill by completing at least 90 days of active service. Other benefits include a housing stipend.

    The Montgomery GI Bill provides active-duty service members greater financial assistance than the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Service members are eligible for Montgomery GI Bill benefits after two years of service, and the government makes payments directly to the student. However, benefits expire after 10 years, while Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits do not.


  • Scholarships and Financial Aid

    In addition to federal tuition assistance and GI Bill benefits, active-duty service members can pursue funding from organizations such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Many organizations sponsor scholarships for enlisted personnel and veterans.

    Degree-seekers planning to enlist after graduation may qualify for Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) scholarships. These awards pay up to full tuition for qualifying ROTC members.

    Learners attending one of the best online colleges for military degree-seekers can also apply for private scholarships and grants. Many organizations offer merit-based and need-based aid for military students. Application deadlines and requirements vary by award.


U.S. Air Force ​A1C

Expert Interview

Lizz Galea

Q. What do you enjoy most about pursuing your degree?

I love being knowledgeable about the things I am most passionate about. Health has always played a huge role in my life, and I’m constantly learning new ways to incorporate better healthy habits into my everyday routine.

Q. What is the most challenging part about attending college while serving in the military?

The most challenging parts would have to be the unstructured nature of college and really prioritizing time for school. The military is extremely structured, as many people already know. As a service member, I know what my duties and responsibilities are. If I am given orders to accomplish a task, there is a deadline, and if it’s not completed in time, it may impact the mission.

On the other hand, in college, the success is all up to the student. The professors will provide the material and help if asked, but if I decide not to do the work, it’s only my future that I am affecting. This leads to prioritizing time. For example, I work 0730-1630 Monday through Friday. Under special circumstances, I may have to work earlier, later, or even on the weekends. However, this does not include time for daily errands, the gym, or any extra volunteer work that the Air Force may require.

To avoid overwhelming myself, I have to create a schedule. My work schedule, any special duties, gym time, and designated time for studying all go in my planner.

Q. What are some tips for student success while trying to balance serving with getting an education?

Make a schedule for yourself. If you don’t have a planner or a calendar, get one. They are so inexpensive, and they will help you keep your head on straight. Second to that, another important tip would be to have a clear understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing. I find it helpful to write down what motivates me and what pushes me to do better. Make a list of short-term and long-term goals, and try to chip away at them every day.

Q. What is your recommendation for funding a degree while actively serving?

Fortunately, every active-duty service member is entitled to tuition assistance. Depending on how expensive the college or university is, it is possible that the military will pay for up to two classes per semester. Going to school is not only a benefit in the military, but is also looked at as a privilege. Service members need to meet specific requirements to take classes. To name a few examples, we have to complete our upgrade training, know that the mission comes first, and maintain a certain GPA. I couldn’t agree more with the requirements. The military really gives everyone a fair and equal way to further their education.

Q. How is funding different for active military versus reserve members?

There is no difference. There are some specific scholarships for each, but no difference in costs.


Lizz Galea

U.S. Air Force ​A1C (Airman First Class) ​Lizz Galea, 23, is from Kalkaska, Michigan, and is currently stationed at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom, about 75 miles from London. She decided​ to join the Air Force in April 2019 and officially enlisted in the DEP (Delayed Entry Program) in May 2019.​ She ​is taking online classes in pursuit of an arts and sciences degree from Northwestern Michigan College, located about 25 miles from her hometown. She has a particular interest in dietetics and hopes to eventually work as a ​registered dietitian for athletes​.

Additional Resources



Organizations like individual military branches, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Veterans Affairs provide many tools and services to support military students.


  • American Council of Education Military Guide The ACE Military Guide assists colleges and universities by awarding credit for students' military training. Service members and veterans use this guide to determine how their training translates to college credit.

  • Army Continuing Education System ACES provides Army service members with free academic training, including a high school completion program, English language instruction, and functional academic skills training.

  • Career Path Decide Service members transitioning back to civilian life can use this resource to research career opportunities, industry trends, and the top military-friendly jobs.

  • Choosing a School Guide Service members and veterans can use this resource to research the best online colleges for military members and their families. Downloadable guides explain different benefits and how to access them.

  • College Navigator This software compiles data on thousands of U.S. colleges and universities. Users can search by institution type and degree level.

  • Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support Service members in all branches can use DANTES to locate approved college programs, receive credit for military training, and find education support programs.

  • Montgomery GI Bill - Active Duty The Montgomery GI Bill delivers college funding for active-duty military personnel. Participants must pay $100 per month into the program for at least one year and must have at least two years of active-duty service.

  • Post 9/11 GI Bill The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides financial aid to active-duty service members and veterans with at least 90 days of active service. Degree-seekers with three years of service do not pay tuition or fees at their state's most expensive public college or university.

  • Tuition Assistance DECIDE Service members who are eligible for federal tuition assistance can use TA DECIDE to select a college or university. Users can view all approved schools or search by state, degree level, or learning method.

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by the VA is available at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill/.

Portrait of Thomas Broderick

Thomas Broderick

Thomas Broderick is a freelance writer and the owner of Broderick Writer LLC. He creates study guides, informational websites, and blog posts for clients in the education field. Thomas is also a published author of over 20 short stories and a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

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